It’s both the archival footage and the life story that make “Fidel Castro,” a biography of the longtime Cuban leader airing tonight on PBS as part of its “American Experience” series, good television.
In this fair-minded and compelling two-hour documentary, written and produced by Cuban native Adriana Bosch, we get the whole of Castro’s life, including his early years as both an unruly youth and a budding leader. Some of the footage that lives is remarkable; we see him without the trademark beard.
But it is in the Sierra Maestra, where Castro, wearing military fatigues and puffing on a cigar, cuts the image that would become indelible (early on, apparently, Castro understood the importance of the TV camera). At one point, the young guerrilla is interviewed by a CBS news reporter in the rugged jungles of the Sierra Maestra range.
If there’s any romanticism in “Fidel Castro,” it comes in this segment, Castro’s period in the Sierra Maestras building his would-be revolution among a makeshift rebel army (including a young Che Guevara) and peasants, which has a kind of “Motorcycle Diaries” allure.
“Here is quite a man,” New York Times reporter Herbert Matthews, who found him in the Sierra Maestras, wrote of Castro. “A powerful six-footer, olive skin with a scraggly beard. He has strong ideas of liberty, democracy and social justice.”
Castro took power in 1959. If he emerged as a populist hero at home, Castro soon became a nuisance to the U.S. for his embrace of the Soviet Union. We see him go on “Meet the Press” and deny his fealty to Communism, only to abet the nuclear arms race.
Bosch, who has portrayed U.S. presidents including Ulysses S. Grant and Jimmy Carter for “American Experience,” explores the human-rights abuses against his own people that are part of Castro’s legacy.
His dynamism never quite folding, Castro falls in and out with Soviet leaders, maneuvering through various U.S. presidencies. Of the people or, at least, sort of.
“Fidel Castro” is a lesson in what rebels and/or terrorists know full well -- to position yourself as David against the Goliath United States is ineffably good PR in much of the world.
“Wherever Castro goes, he is applauded,” Wayne Smith, a former U.S. diplomat in Cuba, says at the end of Bosch’s film. “Not because people want to adapt the Cuban system, because he has defied the United States and survived.”